The Treaty of Ghent (8 Stat. 218) was the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812 between the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Both sides signed it on December 24, 1814, in the city of Ghent, United Netherlands (now Belgium). The treaty restored relations between the two parties to status quo ante bellum, restoring the borders of the two countries to the lines before the war started in June 1812.
The treaty was approved by the British Parliament and signed into law by the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) on December 30, 1814. It took a month for news of the peace treaty to reach the United States during which American forces under Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, and the British won the Second Battle of Fort Bowyer on February 12, 1815. The treaty was not fully in effect until the United States Senate advised and consented to ratification, which occurred unanimously on February 16, 1815. President James Madison ratified the treaty, and ratifications were exchanged, on February 17, 1815. That began more than two centuries of peaceful relations between the United States and Britain, despite a few tense moments, such as the Pig War in 1859 and Trent Affair in 1861.
After the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814, British public opinion demanded major gains in the war against the United States. The senior American representative in London told US Secretary of State James Monroe:
There are so many who delight in War that I have less hope than ever of our being able to make peace. You will perceive by the newspapers that a very great force is to be sent from Bordeaux to the United States, and the order of the day is division of the States and conquest. The more moderate think that when our Seaboard is laid waste and we are made to agree to a line which shall exclude us from the lake; to give up a part of our claim on Louisiana and the privilege of fishing on the banks, etc. peace may be made with us.:
However, the British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, aware of growing opposition to wartime taxation and the demands of Liverpudlian and Bristolian merchants to reopen trade with America, realized that Britain had little to gain and much to lose from prolonged warfare.
After rejecting Russian proposals to broker peace negotiations, Britain reversed course in 1814. With the defeat of Napoleon the main British goals of stopping American trade with France and impressment of sailors from American ships were dead letters. The treaty was forward-looking and ignored matters that were no longer live issues. Negotiations were held in Ghent, United Netherlands, starting in August 1814. The Americans sent five commissioners: John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, James A. Bayard, Sr., Jonathan Russell, and Albert Gallatin. Except for Russell, all were very senior political leaders; Adams was in charge. The British sent minor officials, who kept in close touch with their superiors in London.
At last in August 1814, peace discussions began in the neutral city of Ghent. As the peace talks opened American diplomats decided not to present President James Madison’s demands for the end of impressment and suggestion that Britain turn Canada over to the U.S. They were quiet and the British instead opened with their demands, the most important one being the creation of an Indian barrier state in the American Northwest Territory (the area from Ohio to Wisconsin). It was understood that the British would sponsor the Indian state. For decades, the British strategy had been to create a buffer state to block American expansion. The Americans refused to consider a buffer state, and the proposal was dropped.
Plaque at a building in Veldstraat, Ghent, where the American diplomats stayed and one of the locations where the treaty was negotiated. It was located at the retail “Esprit” store on Veldstraat 47. Placed by the United States Daughters of 1812. The room in which the treaty was signed is now part of the Hotel d’Hane-Steenhuyse.
Article IX of the treaty included provisions to restore to Natives “all possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed, or been entitled to in 1811”, but the provisions were unenforceable. In any case, the British soon lost interest in the idea of creating an Indian buffer state and stopped supporting or encouraging tribes in American territory.
The British, assuming their planned invasion of New York State would go well, also demanded that Americans not have any naval forces on the Great Lakes and for the British to obtain certain transit rights to the Mississippi River in exchange for continuation of American fishing rights off Newfoundland. The US rejected the demands, and there was an impasse. American public opinion was so outraged when Madison published the demands that even the Federalists were willing to fight on.
During the negotiations, the British had four invasions underway. One force carried out a burning of Washington, but the main mission failed in its goal of capturing Baltimore. The British fleet sailed away when the army commander was killed. A small force invaded the District of Maine from New Brunswick, capturing parts of northeastern Maine and several smuggling towns on the seacoast. Much more important were two major invasions. In northern New York State, 10,000 British troops marched south to cut off New England until a decisive defeat at the Battle of Plattsburgh forced them back to Canada. The defeat was a humiliation that called for a court-martial of the commander. Nothing was known at the time of the fate of the other major invasion force that had been sent to capture New Orleans and control the Mississippi River.
The British prime minister wanted the Duke of Wellington to go to command in Canada with the assignment of winning the war. Wellington replied that he would go to America but believed that he was needed in Europe. He also stated:
I think you have no right, from the state of war, to demand any concession of territory from America…. You have not been able to carry it into the enemy’s territory, notwithstanding your military success, and now undoubted military superiority, and have not even cleared your own territory on the point of attack. You cannot on any principle of equality in negotiation claim a cession of territory except in exchange for other advantages which you have in your power… Then if this reasoning be true, why stipulate for the uti possidetis? You can get no territory: indeed, the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any.
The government had no choice but to agree with Wellington. Liverpool informed Foreign Secretary Castlereagh, who was at Vienna: “I think we have determined, if all other points can be satisfactorily settled, not to continue the war for the purpose of obtaining or securing any acquisition of territory.” Liverpool cited several reasons, especially the unsatisfactory negotiations underway at Vienna, the alarming reports from France that it might resume the war, and the weak financial condition of the government. He did not need to tell Castlereagh that the war was very unpopular; Britons wanted peace and a return to normal trade. The war with America had ruined many reputations and promised no gain.
After months of negotiations, against the background of changing military victories, defeats, and losses, the parties finally realized that their nations wanted peace and that there was no real reason to continue the war. Each side was tired of the war: export trade was all but paralyzed, and after the fall of Napoleon in 1814, France was no longer an enemy of Britain and so the Royal Navy no longer needed to stop American shipments to France and no longer needed more seamen. The British were preoccupied in rebuilding Europe after the apparent final defeat of Napoleon. Liverpool told British negotiators to offer a status quo, which the British government had desired since the start of the war. British diplomats immediately offered that to the US negotiators, who dropped demands for an end to British maritime practices and Canadian territory, ignored their war aims, and agreed. Both sides would exchange prisoners, and Britain would return or pay for slaves captured from the United States.
On December 24, 1814, the members of the British and American negotiating teams signed and affixed their individual seals to the document. That did not itself end the war, which required formal ratification by their governments, which came in February 1815.
The treaty released all prisoners and restored all captured lands and ships. Returned to the United States were approximately 10,000,000 acres (4,000,000 ha; 40,000 km2) of territory, near Lakes Superior and Michigan and in Maine. American-held areas of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) were returned to British control, and the American-held territory in Spanish Florida taken from Britain and officially-neutral Spain were returned to Spanish control. The treaty thus made no changes to the prewar boundaries.
The British promised to return the freed slaves that they had taken. However, a few years later, in 1826, Britain instead paid the United States US$1,204,960 (equivalent to $27,228,552 in 2019) for them. Both nations also promised to work towards an ending of the international slave trade.
Pierre Berton wrote of the treaty:
“It was as if no war had been fought, or to put it more bluntly, as if the war that was fought was fought for no good reason. For nothing has changed; everything is as it was at the beginning save for the graves of those who, it now appears, have fought for a trifle:…Lake Erie and Fort McHenry will go into the American history books, Queenston Heights and Crysler’s Farm into the Canadian, but without the gore, the stench, the disease, the terror, the conniving, and the imbecilities that march with every army.”
In the century of peace between both countries that followed from 1815 to World War I, several more territorial and diplomatic disputes arose however these disputes were all resolved peacefully through arbitration.
The course of the war resolved and ended the other major original issue. The American Indians, the majority of tribes having been allied with the British, had been defeated, allowing the United States to continue its expansion westward. To many Americans, enough humiliating land and sea military victories had been scored over Britain, which had just proved to be the dominant world power by leading the defeat of Napoleon, that full independence from Britain had been forced on them, thus qualifying as a second victory over the British people.
James Carr argues that Britain negotiated the Treaty of Ghent with the goal of ending the war but that it knew that a major British expedition had been ordered to seize New Orleans. Carr says that Britain had no intention of repudiating the treaty and continuing the war if they had won the battle.
News of the treaty finally reached the United States after the major American victory in the Battle of New Orleans, and the treaty won immediate wide approval from all sides.
The US Senate unanimously approved the treaty on February 16, 1815, and President Madison exchanged ratification papers with a British diplomat in Washington on February 17. The treaty was proclaimed on February 18.
The Peace Arch, dedicated in September 1921, stands 20.5 metres (67 ft) tall at the Douglas/Blaine border crossing between the province of British Columbia and the state of Washington. The monument represents a perpetually open gate across the Canada–U.S. boundary. In 1922, the Fountain of Time was dedicated in Washington Park, Chicago, commemorating 110 years of peace between the United States and Britain. The Peace Bridge between Buffalo, New York, and Fort Erie, Ontario, opened in 1927 to commemorate more than a century of peace between the United States and Canada.
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial (1936) commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie that took place near Ohio’s South Bass Island, in which Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry led a fleet to victory in one of the most significant naval battles to occur in the War of 1812. Located on an isthmus on the island, the memorial also celebrates the lasting peace between Britain, Canada, and the United States that followed the war.